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Day 20: Stop using football to cover up politics
No, England winning the Euros will not help anyone pay their energy bills
On Sunday evening, Fran Kirby was asked whether England winning the Euros would take the nation’s minds off the cost of living crisis currently engulfing Britain. The question, and her answer, prompted a whole host of strange headlines but the fact that it was even asked in the way it was reveals the glib approach being taken to the declining living standards within the country.
“As much as we want to win, we want to put a smile on people’s faces,” said Kirby. “They may be going through a hard time in terms of the rising fuel costs and the cost of living right now. Hopefully we can give people an escape for 90-plus minutes when they turn their TVs on, they will have something to cheer about and will see how passionately we play for this country. Hopefully it gives them a sense of pride and they can switch off from everything that is going on.”
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Kirby is not wrong to say what she said. For a start, footballers can only answer the questions asked of them - her response basically mirrored the words originally put to her. Secondly, it is not unreasonable to see sport as being a genuine escape for people. Regardless of what is going on in anyone’s life, the opportunity to have your concerns revolve around how eleven players are going to put a ball in a net for a portion of time is an attractive one.
But the framing of the question indicates the attitude of many in the media to the crisis. There is the sense that the crisis is either a problem that can be switched on and off or some kind of external unstoppable event, akin to an alien invasion, rather than something that the British government has actively exacerbated, whilst also washing its hands of the responsibility to do anything about it. Implying that the England women’s football team can be a useful distraction reveals the levity with which many elites seem to see this issue.
Here is the reality of how the cost of living crisis is actually playing out in Britain right now. Over the past five years, there has been an 81% increase in food bank usage. Fuel poverty has risen by 43% with energy bills only rising and increased excess mortality predicted over this winter. Inflation is at a 40 year high, pushing the price of goods up whilst people face a real wage cut. None of these things are going to change if England win the Euros. All of these things could be changed if the government decided to make some policy.
But it also shows how the nation is constructed through sport. Embracing the concept of ‘Englishness’ is a complicated one given the history of colonisation, racism and violence tied up in it. The diversity of the men’s English football team last summer showed a way in which a different version of ‘England’ could potentially be conceived - although whether any nation-state can be a ‘good’ thing is debatable. The whiteness of the women’s English football team, however, has been correctly highlighted this month.
Yet we are all expected to put aside our problems in order to show respect for the nation when the right sporting occasion comes along. The idea being that it does not matter if you are cold or hungry as long as you get to be part of the same country that might end up as the Euro 2022 winner.
Football can be a wonderful distraction. It can be a unifier, a way of bringing people together, whether along club lines or national lines. But when questions like these are put to players, it reveals the unspoken commentary that rumbles under much of the discourse in this country: put up, shut up, and be glad to be English.